by Jessica Beecham
From the Editor: Jessica Beecham is a highly motivated, intelligent, and committed member of the National Federation of the Blind who is expanding the possibilities for all of us by her athletic endeavors and her willingness to share the way she has achieved what many of us have written off as impossible—significant athletic competition. Here is a speech she gave at the 2017 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. In transcribing it I was moved emotionally--not only by what she did, but by the courage and inventiveness she employed in reaching her ambitious goals. I am not likely to do the runs she highlights here, but I am uplifted by knowing that it can be done by a blind person. Here is what she says:
Arthur C. Clarke said that “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Although Kevin Kovacs says that “The most important Arnold Schwarzenegger quote is, ‘I’ll be back.’ Arnold also said that “In our society, women who break down barriers are those who ignore limits.” T.S. Eliot said that “Only those who are willing to go too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
The National Federation of the Blind believes that with love, hope, and determination, we transform dreams into reality. For seventy-eight years the National Federation of the Blind has boldly broken down barriers and defied expectations to show the world that there is no limit to the capacity of blind people.
Our organization is full of leaders who have never been afraid to break down barriers. Dr. Marc Maurer often tells the story of the time that he taught Fred Schroeder to use a chainsaw. Dr. Schroeder was a little nervous at the beginning of the lesson, but he knew that Dr. Maurer was a very capable teacher. After the lesson was over Dr. Schroeder could successfully use a chainsaw, and no human limbs were lost in the process. Dr. Maurer confessed that before teaching Dr. Schroeder, he himself had never before used a chainsaw.
President Mark Riccobono was hired to develop educational programs for the Jernigan Institute. Dr. Maurer tasked him with the chore of developing a science camp for blind youth. When newly hired Mark Riccobono asked, “So, what is the plan?” Dr. Maurer responded, “Well, isn’t that what I hired you for?”
Remember that in the early 2000’s science programs for blind people were very limited. President Riccobono’s willingness to blaze new trails has allowed many of the youth who’ve participated in those first science programs to go on and blaze trails in STEM careers—notably Jordan Caster, one of the first Youth Slam participants who is now a software developer at Apple. Just a little side note: President Riccobono also went on to become the first blind person to drive a car independently on the Daytona Speedway.
Our very own Diane McGeorge saw that the rehabilitation services being offered by most state agencies just wasn’t cutting it, so she founded the Colorado Center for the Blind. Thanks to Diane, Joyce Scanlan, the founder of BLIND Inc., and Joanne Wilson, founder of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, (three phenomenal women) the Federation has transformed the face of blindness rehabilitation. When we are surrounded by all of these great leaders and heroes, it is easy to see that we as blind people determine our own futures and that we also have the obligation to set a high bar for those who will follow in our footsteps.
As president of the National Federation of the Blind Sports and Recreation Division, I am honored to know blind people who have completed pretty amazing adventures. Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, a dangerous and daunting feet. Although thousands attempt it each year, only a handful of skilled climbers actually reach the summit. Jason Romero ran across the United States in less than two months. Only three hundred people have crossed the United States on foot. His speedy crossing puts him among the fastest of those to complete this epic journey. This month Erich Manser set the world visually impaired Ironman record by completing a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run in ten hours and forty-two minutes. Amy Dixon became the first blind female to complete an XTERRA triathlon, which is an open water swim followed by a very technical trail, bike, and run. Rhonda-Marie Avery is the first blind woman to compete in the Barkley Marathons, in fact the first blind person ever to compete in this marathon. The Barkley Marathons is the toughest foot race in the world, and it has only been completed by sixteen people. If you’ve never heard of this grueling and quirky race, check out episode thirty-seven of Find Your Fit, or watch the documentary about the Barkley Marathons on Netflix. It is truly a race like none other. Bettina Dolinsek is the first blind CrossFit instructor, and Maureen Nietfeld is the first Zumba instructor. Let’s give it up for all those blind people who blaze those trails so that we can live the lives we want.
Everyone in this room has the opportunity to be a trailblazer. Isn’t that what the National Federation of the Blind is all about? I mean, Jim Gashel has just blown it out of the park this morning showing us how, over the past fifty years, we’ve done nothing but blaze trails. We’ve blazed trails so that blind students can have access to STEM curriculum, so that parents who are blind can raise their children without question. We blaze trails so that future generations will not have to experience the same discrimination that we have when looking for employment or getting accessible technology.
Recently I have taken my running off road to try a little trailblazing. In 2016 I became the first blind person to complete the Pike’s Peak Marathon, a round trip up and down Pike’s Peak Mountain. My blind friend Luanne Burke was along for the journey and was the first blind person to complete the Pike’s Peak Assent, a trip all the way up Pike’s Peak Mountain, a race all the way up. This summer I tried my hand at my first fifty-mile race, the Pike’s Peak Ultra, one of the ten toughest foot races in the United States, featuring over 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss going up and down Pike’s Peak one-and-a-half times over very technical terrain.
Today I want to share a few of the lessons I have learned while trailblazing: every trailblazer needs a solid team. When I found the National Federation of the Blind, I found a group of people who believed in me more than I believed in myself. This was not because they knew me; most of them didn’t. But they believed in the abilities and the dreams of all blind people. A solid team provides a sound support structure for our success.
In the months leading up to the Pike’s Peak Ultra, the National Federation of the Blind, Colorado Center for the Blind, and countless friends and family displayed their belief in me by supporting my WE Fit Fifty fundraising campaign to raise money for WE Fit Wellness, a cause very near and dear to my heart. Because of my team we were able to raise over $8,000 for the continued work of WE Fit Wellness.
Leading up to the Pike’s Peak Ultra, my travel schedule was grueling, beginning with national convention and ending the day before the race with my flight back from the 2017 Youth Slam program. My WE Fit Wellness team made sure everything was in place so that all I had to worry about when I got home was taking a nap, or so I thought. They actually had found time to come up with a really fun surprise. The guy in the video I am about to show is my dad: [Jessica’s father was there to meet her at the airport, and when she entered the car to take her home, he knocked on the window and in a high-pitched voice asked, “Excuse me, ma’am. May I share this Huber with you?” The video reveals Jessica screaming with excitement, surprise, and pleasure. The convention applauded.] The video can be found at https://youtu.be/NEeC3p6vxZg8.
On race day the WE Fit Wellness team and my Achilles Pike’s Peak team went above and beyond to ensure they were at every aid station to make sure that I would have the nutrition and supplies I needed to finish the race. This included standing outside in the pouring rain, offloading on trails that were probably not meant for vehicles, and putting up with my emotional ups and downs that inevitably come with an ultramarathon. Without my entire team I wouldn’t have been able to make it to the starting line let alone to the finish.
Do things that scare you. One of the best ways to grow as a person or an advocate is to do those things that are a little scary. Think back to the first time that you crossed a busy intersection independently or the first time you sat down with a member of Congress to advocate for a cause that was important for blind people. When we do these things that are scary day after day, they become second nature, and they expand our horizons. One of my scariest runs came on Easter Sunday. I was exploring a new part of the Pike’s Peak Fifty course. It started out okay; we were in this part of the trail called Seven Bridges. It was a little technical, but it was fine. And then it wasn’t. I was having to scramble over big rocks; I was running over narrow trails that had slick drop-offs on either side, and the whole time I was crying very quietly behind my guide because I didn’t want her to know how scared I was. I didn’t know how this scary thing was ever going to become second nature, and I went home feeling like I was never going to be able to complete the race. But, after months of training, I was able to develop some alternative techniques that helped me get through the race easier. In the following video you will see some of the alternative techniques I used for trail running, and my favorite thing about this video is that it was actually taken on the same part of the Pike’s Peak Ultra course as my very frightening Easter Sunday run. [The second video can be found at https://youtu.be/Lm-6crZYYhI.]
Now as you could see from that video, I gained a little bit in confidence, but it ain’t all flowers. Sometimes you’re going to find thorns. On race day it rained on and off all day. When I got to my course nemesis, Mount Rosa, there was thunder and lightning, and the course was rerouted because of the lightning. Rosa was a big, bad, beast; she was tall, she was slick, and I never ran on her without falling three or four times. But I practiced and practiced, and every time I ran Mount Rosa, I got a little faster, and I was ready to own her on race day. I was a little heartbroken when I had to skip that part of the course, but that didn’t diminish my feeling of success when I crossed the finish line, and it didn’t change anything about the accomplishment I felt after running fifty-one miles. [applause]
The little bumps in the road, the pitfalls, and even the defeats that we experience help us to savor our successes—being consistent and persistent. The little things that we have to do are not always as glorious as putting on the big conventions, but if we don’t do the little things, then we can’t have the big conventions or win the big victories. So selling the raffle tickets and making phone call after phone call to invite members to meetings oftentimes feels cumbersome, but it is the tedious and inglorious tasks that we do over and over that build our strong foundation for success.
One of my toughest running weeks came at the national convention when I had to run up countless flights of stairs to get to the treadmill. My longest day was a twenty-four-mile treadmill run and an hour running up and down the stairs. [At this point Jessica shows a video of her longest training day, it can be found at https://youtu.be/7I6sl1GuhSo] It is doing those tedious things over and over again that yields the best results. Savor your success, celebrate your success, but before the celebration dies, don’t forget to start planning your next big adventure. This is a lesson I have learned repeatedly from the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind, and it’s one that I hold very near and dear to my heart. When I’m done with a race or achieve any other personal victory, I’ll cry a few happy tears, share some war stories, raise a toast with friends, but before the celebration dies down, I’ll begin planning my next big adventure.
As we gain energy through sharing time, ideas, and dreams with one another this weekend, celebrate the successes of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. As Scott LaBarre just reported, they have been many, but before you leave, don’t forget to start planning your next big adventure. Let’s go blaze some trails!